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Friday, December 2, 2016

Whoever the woman is on the next $10 bill, here’s who it shouldn’t be:

A politician. A Cabinet member. A First Lady.

Put a poet there. A scientist. A musician with a social cause. A social worker. A teacher. A suffragette. An abolitionist.

But, please, not someone primarily associated with politics.

Since Wednesday, when the U.S. Treasury Department announced that a woman will finally star on our paper money, opinions have heated up over who that woman should be.

The excitement is fun to watch, even if this is hardly an advance on par with the first moon landing.

In fact, it’s a bit of a letdown to some people. The honoree will be on a $10 bill instead of on a $20, a disappointment to those who wanted to oust Andrew Jackson.

The lucky winner won’t have the whole bill to herself either. She’ll have to cohabit with its current occupant, Alexander Hamilton.

And the redesign won’t arrive until 2020.

Still, it’s a breakthrough. As others have cracked, a woman is about to shatter the cash ceiling, at least for the first time since Martha Washington, wife of George, appeared on a silver certificate in the late 1800s.

But which woman?

A few women in the political realm are strong contenders.

One is Frances Perkins.

Perkins was U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She fought for child-abor laws. She established the country’s first minimum-wage and overtime laws. I’ve heard her referred to as kickass, and she was.

If she became the face on the next $10 bill, I’d be proud to carry that cash.

But the new currency is the perfect opportunity to think beyond Washington, D.C., to consider the fact that people with power and courage exist beyond the narrow political realm.

That’s why First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, grand as she was, wouldn’t get my vote.

When I was thinking about this topic, someone asked me why we put people’s faces on our money at all.

Why not put an excerpt of the Constitution instead?

Why not birds or butterflies, the way the Costa Ricans do?

Why not pizza?

The best answer, I think, is that people contain stories. Through individual stories we get to tell our bigger, collective ones.

As Jacob Lew, the Treasury Secretary, put it, “America’s currency is a way for our nation to make a statement about who we are and what we stand for.”

Who we are extends into art and culture, the environment and education, social work, and while all of those overlap with politics, they’re different too.

Other countries have acknowledged that fact on their money for a long time.

The women on the Swedish krona include an opera singer and a Nobel Prize-winning writer. Turkey, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia all have women on their paper money. England plans to put the 19th-century writer Jane Austen on its 10-pound note.

Regardless of which woman winds up on our money, the discussion about it is useful.

Thinking and talking about it is a way to review history and learn it.

I was entertained by the names that popped into my mind when I pondered candidates.

What about Louisa May Alcott?

She was a feminist, abolitionist and the author of Little Women, a book that has inspired generations of plucky girls. I wouldn’t mind carrying her around in my wallet.

How about Jane Addams?

That woman did everything. She was a writer and philosopher. She campaigned for women’s right to vote. As the co-founder of Hull House in Chicago, she helped immigrants and the poor. She won the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize.

Handing Jane Addams to a cashier would make me stand up taller.

Rosa Parks, who bravely rode that segregated bus in Alabama? She’s high on my list too.

But when the argument is over, I hope the winner is the apparent frontrunner, Harriet Tubman.

I hadn’t thought of Tubman in years, frankly, but reminded of her life — an abolitionist born to slaves — I can’t imagine anyone better to represent who we’ve been and who we hope to be.

Whoever it is, it’s good to be reminded that the cash we carry represents the stories we tell ourselves.

(Mary Schmich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Contact her at [email protected] You can follow her on twitter.com/maryschmich or contact her on facebook.com/maryschmich)

Photo: Elii Christman via Flickr

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